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Bloomington council delays decision on controversial license plate readers

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WGLT
The family of Jelani Day, upper left, addresses the Bloomington City Council during its remote meeting Monday, Jan. 10, 2022. The Bloomington Police Department is part of the investigation into Day's death, following his August disappearance.

The Bloomington City Council voted 6-2 on Monday to postpone a decision on whether the city will allow controversial police surveillance cameras, capable of automatically reading vehicle license plates.

Ward 3's Sheila Montney and Ward 5's Nick Becker voted "no."

The vote followed push back from the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and several members of the public, who called for more transparency on the $50,000 Flock safety contract, and accused the council of rushing a major decision about whether to add the automatic vehicle license plate readers (ALPRs).

“How dare you try to sneak this by as a consent agenda item with zero public discussion or debate,” said Bloomington resident Matt Toczko, via telephone during public comments. He said the camera surveillance issue is exactly the type of subject that demands transparent discourse.

The board met remotely, after announcing last week its January meetings would be virtual due to increasing cases of COVID-19 in the area.

Carol Koos, local ACLU chapter president, also spoke, noting that even if such a system was used, first a specific privacy policy should be created. She criticized the idea as building a technology moat around minority neighborhoods. Koos also spoke with WGLT earlier Monday about the camera proposal.

“Discussion with the community needs to happen before, not after, the installation,” she said at the meeting.

Monday’s vote means the earliest the council will consider the camera proposal will be at its Feb. 14 meeting.

Over the next month, the city’s Public Safety and Community Relations Board, and its Technology Commission have scheduled meetings, said Ward 8’s Jeff Crabill. Each of those should first discuss the proposal, he said.

Crabill also urged Bloomington Police Chief Jamal Simington to use the rest of the month to share information about the cameras — and how BPD would use the data collected — with the local chapters of the ACLU, the NAACP and Black Lives Matter.

“We have not had sufficient community input” to make a decision on the ALPRs, said Crabill.

Several council members said they have mixed feelings about the proposal, and are trying to weigh public safety with the public’s right to privacy.

Deputy City Manager Billy Tyus said the proposal calls for 10 cameras with limitations on data collection and storage. He noted the data would only be gathered for major cases such as homicides or missing person's cases.

Simington said BPD has taken time to consider the cameras, and how they would be used. He said feedback from other communities using the ALPRs has been overwhelmingly positive, and called adding the cameras a “force multiplier” that would free up hundreds of hours of combing through existing video.

Montney and Becker each said they supported voting on the matter Monday night, rather than delaying the vote on the Flock contract. Becker said his constituents have been begging for such cameras to be installed, while Montney said there was no time to waste.

“The time that we wait, we risk other things happening. We risk crimes that could be solved that we can’t because we don’t have this technology in place,” she said. Montney noted many neighboring communities are using the ALPRs, and the technology also is used in the private sector.

Ward 1’s Jamie Mathy didn’t vote Monday because he was serving as mayor pro-tem in the absence of Bloomington Mayor Mboka Mwilambwe. The mayor is abroad for the holidays.

Family of Jelani Day addresses council

Also during public comments Monday, the mother and brother of Jelani Day addressed the council, criticizing its lack of involvement in supporting the family's efforts to find out how Day died.

An Illinois State University graduate student, Day was found dead in the Illinois River on Sept. 4 less than two weeks after he last was seen in Bloomington. His family has called for his death to be investigated as a homicide.

On Monday, Day’s mother, Carmen Bolden Day, pleaded with the council to make BPD more accountable in the case. "This is a severe crisis that requires a swift, and thorough and transparent action. I am deeply disheartened this is not the kind of action my son has received from you, or the Bloomington Police Department," she said.

Bolden Day said she expected better communication from Bloomington leaders about the status of the case, noting Chief Simington contacted her only twice, the last time on Oct. 13.

The mother of the 25-year-old victim also urged the council and mayor to push for the FBI to take over the Day case — for which the family and supporters have campaigned. BPD is one of several agencies involved in the ongoing investigation.

Although the FBI announced last month it is offering a $10,000 reward for information in the case, it is only helping other lead agencies that include BPD, Illinois State Police, Peru Police Department and the LaSalle County Sheriff's Department.

Seve Day, Jelani’s older brother, told the council the case — and its lack of closure — has taken a toll on his family’s health. He also urged the council to step up pressure on the BPD investigation.

Later in the meeting, speaking as mayor pro-tem, Mathy told the Day family the council was limited in how it can respond, given the case is an ongoing investigation.

During the council's discussion on the automatic video license plate readers, Montney said she wondered if such cameras had been in place in August, might that have assisted in the Day investigation.

In other business the council:
— Approved a $4 million contract with Fisher Tank Company to handle the Fort Jesse Road tank rehabilitation project. Public works oversees the multimillion-dollar project that involves rehabilitating two giant tanks at 1513 Fort Jesse Road. Each holds two million gallons of treated water, where its stored prior to its distribution throughout the city.
— OK'd spending about $117,000 to care for several area waterways. The contracts are with the U.S. Geological Survey Central Midwest Water Science Center and will cover the cost of installing, operating and maintaining stream gauges on Six Mile Creek, Money Creek and Kickapoo Creek.
— Renewed about $200,000 in contracts with Dell Inc. for software renewal and licensing agreements.

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Michele Steinbacher is a WGLT correspondent. She joined the staff in 2020.
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